Russia, Ukraine, and Global Food Security: A One-Year Assessment

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and attacks across Ukraine’s agricultural system have led to unprecedented—and wholly avoidable—impacts on global agricultural markets, global food security, and nutrition. The response from the United States and others was immediate and comprehensive. Nonetheless, the invasion is worsening malnutrition for millions and delaying the provision of humanitarian assistance for those suffering the worst forms of food insecurity. What do we know about the war’s impacts on global food security, what more should be done to address it, and what does it mean for the future of the war?

Q1: How much of Ukraine’s agriculture sector has Russia destroyed?

A1: Since February 2022, Russia has waged widespread attacks on Ukraine’s agricultural labor force, farms, and infrastructure. In June 2022, CSIS analyzed satellite imagery of several such attacks—including a farm, dairy, and food warehouse—and though other anecdotal evidence abounds, it masks the true extent of Russia’s destruction. According to official estimates from Ukraine’s Ministry of Agrarian Policy and Food (MAPF) and the Kyiv School of Economics (KSE) with support from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), the World Bank, and the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development, since Russia invaded Ukraine, 84,200 pieces of agricultural machinery have been totally or partially damaged, four million tons of grains and oilseeds have been destroyed or stolen, and storage for 9.4 million tons of agricultural products has been damaged or destroyed.

While the total value of damages to Ukraine’s agriculture sector exceeds $6.6 billion, the total value of losses—the foregone agriculture-based revenue due to these damages—reaches $34.25 billion. According to MAPF and KSE, Ukraine suffered $11.2 billion in crop losses in 2022 and expects to absorb $3 billion in losses in 2022–2023 winter crops. Disruption of agricultural logistics—increased prices of transport and shipping coupled with plummeting domestic prices for export-oriented commodities—resulted in a further $18.5 billion in losses. Damages and losses are concentrated in Luhansk, Kharkiv, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson, and likely exceed beyond the figures stated here, which reflect survey results through September 15, 2022.  

No such comprehensive estimate of the war’s impacts on Ukraine’s agricultural labor force exists yet. Many farmers have left the agriculture sector to join Ukraine’s armed forces, and Ukrainian press regularly report mine explosions that take the lives of farmers, foresters, and civilians.

Q2: How has this affected Ukraine’s economy?

A2: In targeting Ukraine’s agriculture sector, Russia is worsening food insecurity among the Ukrainian people and undercutting Ukraine’s economy. According to the UN World Food Program (WFP), 14 million Ukrainians have been displaced by the war and 18 million people across Ukraine need humanitarian assistance today. Prior to the war, agriculture accounted for approximately 20 percent of Ukraine’s GDP and was Ukraine’s most valuable export, contributing over 41 percent of the country’s overall exports, with export values totaling $27.8 billion annually. In 2022, Ukraine’s economy contracted by more than 30 percent due in large part to losses in its agricultural sector.

Since the implementation of the Black Sea Grain Initiative in August, Ukraine has exported over 22 million tons of grains through the Black Sea ports of Odesa, Chornomorsk, and Pivdennyi, which collectively handled approximately half of Ukraine’s pre-war maritime agricultural exports. Operationalization of these ports does not restore Ukraine to its prewar export levels, however. To make up for lost maritime export routes, Ukrainian producers have found alternative—and expensive—export routes by road and rail. Since Russia’s invasion, the average price of shipping agricultural products increased from $30 per ton to $200 per ton. As a result of lost productivity and export capacity, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that exports of wheat in the past six months have been approximately 37 percent lower than the year prior.

With limited access to export routes, many Ukrainian farmers have been unable to sell grain already harvested, denying them income to cover past debt or fund future activities. Forced to retain their produce in storage on-farm, they have had no place to store subsequent crops, restricting land available for future plantings. Because of the glut in grain available in Ukraine, domestic prices for export-oriented commodities are more than 60 percent lower than their prewar levels. The aggregate impacts of these dynamics is stark: some estimates suggest Ukraine's grain harvest could fall by as much as 35 to 40 million metric tons in 2023.

Q3: What about fertilizer?

A3: Since the start of the war, Western sanctions on Russia have exempted Russia’s food and fertilizer exports, which U.S. government officials have announced on numerous occasions and the Department of the Treasury has reiterated. Nonetheless, the war has affected the global price of fertilizers through higher prices of natural gas, an important feedstock for nitrogen-based fertilizers. Despite carve-outs for agriculture, some firms have been wary of doing business with Russia, resulting in reduced exports, particularly of fertilizers, with Russia’s exports of anhydrous ammonia hit particularly hard. Prewar, Russia exported anhydrous ammonia via pipelines to Odesa, which Russia has not accessed since its invasion. Furthermore, while Western sanctions exempt Russia’s food and fertilizer exports, prewar sanctions against Belarus imposed by the European Union have limited Belarus’s ability to export potash. As a result, though fertilizer prices have retreated from their spike around Russia’s invasion, prices for all forms of fertilizer—nitrogen, phosphate, and potassium—still remain 80 to 100 percent above 2020 levels.

Q4: How has this affected global food security and nutrition?

A4: With Russia and Ukraine together accounting for one-third of global wheat trade, 17 percent of global maize trade, and almost 75 percent of global sunflower oil trade, Russia’s invasion shocked global agricultural markets. Immediately after Russia’s invasion in February 2022, the FAO Food Price Index hit an all-time high, followed by a second all-time high in March 2022. Though global food prices have since retreated from this peak, they remain significantly higher than 2021.

Today, WFP reports that a record 349 million people across 79 countries face acute food insecurity. This all-time high represents an increase of 200 million people compared to pre-Covid-19. In February 2023, the heads of the FAO, WFP, International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank Group, and World Trade Organization together warned of “an unprecedented shock to the global food system, with the most vulnerable hit the hardest.” Low- and middle-income, food-importing countries—particularly those countries in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia that relied on the Black Sea for their imports—have suffered the worst effects of the global food crisis. Two dynamics are worth emphasizing: the impacts of the Russia-Ukraine war on household nutrition, and the impacts on the provision of humanitarian assistance.

First, though Russia’s war in Ukraine has reduced exports of grains and oilseeds, it has affected consumption of other, more nutritious foods. In the WFP’s East Africa region, WFP reported that the price of a local basket of food had increased by more than 55 percent over the past 12 months. (The price of imported wheat alone had increased by more than 58 percent since Russia’s invasion.) Suffering from successive droughts, East African countries are unable to buffer their dependence on global markets with domestic production; the increased price of fertilizer and fuel makes agricultural activity costlier. Lower yields in the future could push domestic prices even higher. In the Asia Pacific, WFP reports increased costs of food in all countries in the region.

In general, as the price of staple foods increase—as witnessed over the past year—low-income families shift consumption away from more nutritious food and toward less nutritious food. Food with higher nutrient values is generally more expensive, so families eat less of it; staple foods are generally cheaper, so families eat more. While the high price of staple foods alone may contribute to this dynamic, the high price of nutritious food is worsening it. In East Africa, WFP reports nutrient-rich foods like milk and beans are more expensive than one year ago. In the Asia Pacific, WFP reports a 20–36 percent increase in the cost of nutritious food in the past two to three years.

A recent analysis from the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) illustrates this phenomenon. Prior to the war, Egypt, the world’s largest importer of wheat, procured about 85 percent of its wheat imports from the Black Sea. War-related supply chain disruptions and other factors have led to more than 30 percent increase in domestic food prices. Across more than 6,000 low-income households across the country, IFPRI found that 85 percent of households consumed less meat and 75 percent of households consumed less poultry and eggs, with price increases cited as the main reason for cutbacks. At the same time, consumption of potatoes and pasta increased among 21 and 14 percent of households, respectively. These shifts in consumption could worsen malnutrition across Egypt, including anemia among women of reproductive age and overweight and obesity across the population.

The United Nations recently estimated that in 2020, 3.1 billion people could not afford the least expensive form of a healthy diet, estimated to cost about $3.54 per day. The Global Diet Quality Project recently published the first-ever results of a global survey on diet quality, reporting that in 34 out of the 41 countries surveyed, less than half of the population is consuming diets that contain all five food groups commonly recommended for daily consumption in national dietary guidelines. Food price inflation caused by Russia’s war in Ukraine will likely continue to put nutritious foods out of reach for millions.

Russia’s war in Ukraine has also affected the provision of humanitarian assistance worldwide. Today, acute food insecurity is concentrated in places suffering from regional conflict, the effects of climate change, and lingering economic effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. While the number of acutely food-insecure people is at an all-time high, the costs of providing humanitarian assistance is likewise at a historic peak: WFP’s monthly operating costs today are $73.6 million more than their 2019 average, representing a 44 percent increase, primarily resulting from the increased price of fuel and increased prices of WFP food aid, which includes wheat and ready-to-use therapeutic foods (RUTF). Finally, the Russia-Ukraine war, while rightly occupying significant political attention, reduced politicians’ attention to other humanitarian emergencies. According to UNICEF ’s deputy regional director for Eastern and Southern Africa, Rania Dagash-Kamara, Russia’s war in Ukraine “led to a much-delayed response for us.” By July, “when the world turned its attention to the drought crisis . . . we had already seen a lot of suffering—more than seven million children under five were wasted across three countries.”

Q5: How has the world responded?

A5: Historic political and financial commitments by the U.S. government, our allies, and multilateral organizations have characterized the global response to today’s food crisis. Last May, Secretary of State Antony Blinken convened foreign ministers from approximately 30 countries for a Global Food Security Call to Action meeting at UN Headquarters, and Secretary Blinken cohosted a Global Food Security Summit around the UN General Assembly in September. Also in May, the G7 launched a Global Alliance for Food Security and G7 leaders issued a separate G7 Statement on Global Food Security at the G7 Summit in June, reflecting high-level deliberations on the issue. In July, U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) administrator Samantha Power announced $200 million—the largest U.S. government commitment to date—to increase children’s access to malnutrition treatment, including through RUTFs. In September, USAID announced a further $280 million for child malnutrition treatment from philanthropies, donor governments, and faith-based organizations. The U.S. government announced multiple increases in funding for the WFP throughout 2022, amounting to a historic $7.2 billion in funding from the United States, representing a $3.4 billion increase in U.S. donations to WFP over 2021. In 2022, President Biden also expanded the Feed the Future initiative to 8 new countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, extending U.S. government investment in agriculture and food systems from 12 to 20 target countries. The Department of State’s Vision for Adapted Crops and Soils (VACS), undertaken in partnership with the FAO and African Union (AU), aims to increase production of nutritious crops in food-insecure countries. The World Bank’s $30 billion food and nutrition security package included $3.5 billion in new financing for food and nutrition.

Foreign assistance for food security generally spans these two categories—investments in humanitarian assistance and investments in agricultural productivity—though 2022 saw the emergence of a third type of assistance to cover food-insecure countries’ food import bills. For countries reliant on global markets for their food security, high food prices caused import costs to soar, while the strength of the U.S. dollar relative to local currencies made food imports—generally denominated in dollars—even more expensive. In early 2022, the FAO proposed a Food Import Financing Facility (FIFF) to buffer food costs for those countries most exposed to global food price increases. The IMF took on the FAO’s proposal and is now implementing it through its Food Shock Window, which has disbursed funding to Malawi, Guinea, Burkina Faso, and Haiti to date.

Q6: What does this mean for the war? What more should be done?

A6: As Russia has undercut Ukraine’s agricultural exports, favorable weather conditions have provided Russia an exemplary harvest, leading to an estimated record high of 43 million tons of wheat exports in the 2022-2023 growing season. Moscow is acutely aware of the political influence its agricultural exports offer, with former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev announcing food to be Russia’s “silent weapon.” Russia has continually blamed Western sanctions for the ongoing global food crisis, despite carve-outs for Russia’s food and fertilizer exports, and has tried to convince others of its narrative, including through President Putin’s summit with African Union president Macky Sall in June 2022, at the G20 Summit in Indonesia, and through Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov’s trips to Africa in 2022 and 2023. In addition to diplomacy at the United Nations, G7, and G20, the United States has elevated its engagement with Africa on food security, notably through the December 2022 U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, where food security featured prominently on leaders’ agendas and President Biden reiterated U.S. commitment to support African countries’ efforts to improve food security. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen reiterated these messages in her January trip to Senegal, Zambia, and South Africa. On Tuesday in Poland, President Biden accused President Putin of trying “to starve the world, blocking the ports in the Black Sea to stop Ukraine from exporting its grain—exacerbating the global food crisis that hit developing nations in Africa especially hard.”

As the war and sanctions continue to exact a heavy toll on Russia’s economy, Russia’s agriculture sector will provide an important source of revenue and global influence. Countering Russia’s food influence—while addressing the global food crisis—will require continual diplomacy and sustained commitment to food-insecure countries’ agriculture and food systems. Among the many U.S. government commitments to global food security in 2022 was USAID’s launch of the AGRI-Ukraine initiative for Ukraine’s agriculture sector. Increased investments in Ukraine’s agriculture sector under initiatives like this will likewise help stabilize global agricultural markets, improve nutrition and food security for millions, and support Ukraine’s economy at the same time.

Caitlin Welsh is the director of the Global Food Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.